Designing Transmedia: A Toolkit for Educators

Transmedia can create powerful, immersive, and vast story worlds and have resulted in the creation of successful entertainment experiences such as Star Wars, Harry Potter and The Matrix. Previously, transmedia endeavours were frequently motivated by commercial interests (marketing campaigns, entertainment franchises, etc) and as a result much of the scholarly transmedia research surrounds its application to the entertainment industry. However, the rich narratives and opportunities for participation across multiple channels also make transmedia a valuable tool for learning and play. Educational publishers such as Scholastic and PBS are innovating pedagogical approaches by using transmedia to create meaningful, rich and engaging experiences for children.

Leveraging transmedia for education isn’t just for production and publishing companies with big budgets and vast audiences—it can be a tool for teachers and parents too. Transmedia can be a fresh and valuable resource for educators struggling to keep up with changing technologies and the necessity of media literacies. However, teachers are often so overloaded with daily grading and lesson planning that diving into the details of incorporating new media practices into the classroom can seem daunting or unrealistic.

A quick google search of the term transmedia shows that there is no shortage of “how-to” guides for producing transmedia experiences or crafting transmedia stories. Yet, what’s missing is a simple and practical guide for busy teachers to understand both the value of transmedia and how to easily introduce it into their classrooms.

The goal for creating Designing Transmedia: A Toolkit for Educators is to give teachers and parents a resource for creating small scale transmedia experiences that prioritize participation, collaboration and improved learning outcomes. The framework aims to help teachers think through how to include transmedia in their classroom. Once teachers have a basis for how to approach transmedia, online resources such as www.readwritethink.org and www.commonsensemedia.org can contribute useful lesson plans to supplement the guide.

The remainder of this post provides a summary of related academic research in transmedia learning.

Literature Review:

Transmedia is frequently associated with media theorist Henry Jenkins; and while Jenkins has contributed to much of the academic knowledge surrounding transmedia storytelling, it was Marsha Kinder who coined the term “transmedia” in 1991. Kinder discussed transmedia intertextuality in the context of entertainment and commercial “supersystems” that developed around franchises such as Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles and Muppet Babies when the audience was encouraged to follow characters across various platforms (Kinder, 1991).

Transmedia means “across media” and Jenkins further evolved this notion to transmedia storytelling wherein each medium adds a “distinct and valuable” contribution to the overall narrative or story world (Jenkins, 2006, p. 95). Related terms such as media mix, multimedia or cross-platform are often used interchangeably with transmedia. However, scholars agree that one narrative repurposed for multiple channels or one narrative with affinity items that can be purchased does not make a true transmedia experience (Meyers, McKnight, & Krabbenhoft, 2014). The combination of media types creates a layered experience and encourages additional comprehension of the narrative as the audience follows the story across various channels (Herr-Stephenson, Alper, Reilly, & Jenkins, 2013). Using the affordances of each channel, a narrative can be constructed that is both distributed and participatory (Meyers et al., 2014). For example, books and movies can provide large volumes of information on the characters and plot, websites can provide an outlet for the story to evolve in real-time, and social properties give the audience a space for sharing, discussing and creating fan fiction (Herr-Stephenson et al., 2013).

The concept of transmedia play was developed by a team of educators, researchers and designers at the USC Annenberg Innovation Lab who are exploring transmedia as a tool for learning (Herr-Stephenson et al., 2013). Transmedia play is similar to transmedia storytelling, but distinct in that it “involves experimentation with and participation in a transmedia experience, but also applies to media that has no storyline, such as open-ended videogames” (Herr-Stephenson et al., 2013, p. 1 ).

Transmedia elements have been used in children’s entertainment franchises from Sesame Street to Peter Pan. Common transmedia elements used may include books, television, movies, games, puzzles, websites and social media. Successful transmedia experiences for children relies on their ability to navigate, create, remix, and share many types of media across both physical and virtual spaces (Alper & Herr-Stephenson, 2013). Children are then challenged to use various textual, visual and media literacy skills to create and remix through the various platforms (Herr-Stephenson et al., 2013).

For children’s entertainment, some transmedia properties are designed with learning in mind and some are not. However, even without specific educational goals, transmedia offers potential opportunities for learning (Herr-Stephenson et al., 2013). The application of transmedia to enrich learning experiences is relatively young and is just beginning to be explored by academic researchers (Alper & Herr-Stephenson, 2013).

A popular misconception from educators and parents is that transmedia experiences involve too much screen time or that they are for entertainment purposes only. While the concerns of commercialization in contemporary entertainment, negative health effects of screen-based consumption, and inadequate supervision regarding a child’s media use are all valid concerns; the skills and knowledge children receive through interacting with various media types should be valued by teachers and parents just as much as traditional channels.

Finally, I draw your attention to the technology accessibility gap for youth from low-income schools and/or families. Jenkins discusses the participation gap as the inequality in young people’s access to new media technologies and the opportunities for participation that are lost without access (Jenkins, Purushotma, Weigel, Clinton, & Robinson, 2009). Having a computer isn’t enough—regular and fast access to the Internet enables youth to share and engage in networked communities. One of the benefits to transmedia is that children don’t need to engage with all the elements to make sense of the story—however, access to technology is an important consideration for transmedia designers when creating equitable educational opportunities.

 The body of research surrounding transmedia learning suggests rich narratives across multiple platforms may create more equitable educational opportunities for children who aren’t engaging with traditional mediums. Educators and media makers are contributing to a growing body of work that supports the value of participation and its influence on children’s understanding of the world around them. Further research is needed to fully understand the quality of learning through transmedia play, beyond media literacy outcomes.

By: Amanda Powell


References

Alper, M., & Herr-Stephenson, R. (2013). Transmedia Play: Literacy Across Media. Journal of Media Literacy Education, 5(2), 366–369. Retrieved from http://digitalcommons.uri.edu/jmle/vol5/iss2/2

Herr-Stephenson, B., Alper, M., Reilly, E., & Jenkins, H. (2013). T is for Transmedia: Learning through Transmedia Play. Los Angeles and New York. Retrieved from http://www.archive.annenberglab.com/projects/t-transmedia

Jenkins, H. (2006). Convergence culture: Where old and new media collide. New York University Press.

Jenkins, H., Purushotma, R., Weigel, M., Clinton, K., & Robinson, A. (2009). Confronting the Challenges of Participatory Culture: Media Education for the 21st Century. MIT Press. https://doi.org/10.1108/eb046280

Kinder, M. (1991). Playing with power in movies, television, and video games: From muppet babies to teenage mutant ninja turtles. University of California Press.

Meyers, E. M., McKnight, J. P., & Krabbenhoft, L. M. (2014). Remediating Tinker Bell: Exploring Childhood and Commodification through a Century-Long Transmedia Narrative. Jeunesse: Young People, Texts, Cultures, 6(1), 95–118. https://doi.org/10.1353/jeu.2014.0001

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